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NimbleGen Raises $9 Million to Turn Smoke And Mirrors into Marketable Microarrays

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Microarray startup NimbleGen, of Madison, Wisc., has nimbly coaxed open the tight purse strings of venture capitalists and raised an additional $9 million to fund its custom microarray program.

This new round of financing brings the total amount the company has raised to $12.5 million.

With these additional funds, the company is moving its photolithographic micromirror microarrays from concept to product. “We are moving into the development of what we refer to as our production prototype devices and have started producing our first batch of chips for some of our collaborators,” said NimbleGen CEO Mike Treble. “We should be delivering some evaluation chips at the end of this month.”

NimbleGen makes chips through a modified photolithographic process that allows it to put over 195,000 data points on each chip, Treble said.

In this process, the company uses a micromirror that Texas Instruments manufactures for film projectors. The mirror directs UV light in order to activate reactions that build up nucleotide bases on specific points on the chip.

The mirror can be redirected to different points to selectively activate or deactivate them, just the way that masks are used to selectively activate or deactivate specific points on an Affymetrix GeneChip.

This technology, which is controlled by computer programs, allows the company to produce custom high-density arrays without being subject to the spot size limitations of an array-making process that involves spot deposition. “Everyone else is talking about custom arrays that are limited to ten to twenty thousand features,” said Treble. “We are routinely doing 100,000 to 200,000 features.”

Currently Affymetrix can produce custom chips with up to 400,000 features. But Affymetrix must design a new photolithographic mask every time it produces a new custom array. Current turnaround time for Affymetrix custom arrays is about four weeks, while Treble said NimbleGen has whittled down the time to develop and create one of its chips to “a few hours.”

Treble also claimed the chips are highly reproducible and pose “dramatic cost advantages.”

These potential advantages may have lured investors to the company, but like any new technology, Nimblegen’s chips must be proven in the actual research market.

Currently, collaborators include John Todd at Cambridge University, as well as a number of researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

"The technology is exciting because it offers arrays that are flexible and high density," said Todd. “Oligonucleotide arrays from others are either inflexible (owing to the process by which they are made) or low density (10,000 elements per array)."

The company has 28 employees now, and expects to grow “significantly” in the next year, Treble said. In addition to the chips, the company is producing the prototype for a computer-driven chip making instrument with a single moving part.

While the company is not planning to commercialize this device until 2003, Treble has said that it could offer biopharma and academia a reliable and cost-effective solution for making their own chips.

Investors in the recent round of financing included Venture Investors Management, Baird Venture Partners, and the State of Wisconsin Investment Board. Skyline Ventures, Tactic II Investments and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation also participated.

— MMJ

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